History, architecture, gastronomy, culture? In three days in Kraków you'll have time to enjoy all this and also take one of the most popular (and toughest) excursions from the Polish city: a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Day 1: The Old Town
Krakow is a charming city and most of its attractions are located in the Old Town. On your first day, you can explore the Stare Miasto quarter, a medieval gem that you can easily explore on foot.
Start the day with a spectacular breakfast
Before exploring Kraków, you need to recharge your batteries. To start the day with energy, I recommend Café Botanica. This bar is located at 9 Bracka Street and specialises in the first meal of the day. Another strong point is the atmosphere of the place: inside, the red brick walls and plants create a very relaxing atmosphere.
Other options to consider are Milkbar Tomasza (24 Sw. Tomasza St.) and Camelot (17 Sw. Tomasza St.). If you can't start your day without a steaming cup of coffee, head for Wesola Cafe (17 Rakowicka St.), a place run by enthusiasts of the precious dark liquid. Their espressos are made with twice as much ground coffee. Not bad, right?
Explore the Market Square
Market Square (Rynek Glówny) is the vibrant heart of Kraków and the starting point for any weekend in the city. This huge space is dominated by the majestic Cloth Exchange (Sukiennice), a Renaissance-style building that housed merchants trading in textiles. Strolling under its arches you can buy a few souvenirs at very competitive prices.
Four metres below the square is Kraków's youngest museum: Rynek Underground. Its touch screens and holograms take us back to the past, when the square had not even been laid out. Virtual reality is flanked by traditional archaeological finds (coins, clothing, etc.) and the remains of an 11th century cemetery.
Due to its popularity and the fact that seating is limited to 300 people, it is preferable to buy tickets in advance. For more information about this first stage, I advise you to read the post What to see and do in Krakow's market square.
Enter nearby St. Mary's Basilica
Before crossing the threshold, stop for a minute to look at the exterior. As you can see, its two towers are of different heights. According to legend, under the reign of Duke Boleslaw the Modest, the decision was made to add two towers to the body of the church and two brothers were commissioned to do so.
When the younger one realised that his watchtower was lower, he killed his brother out of envy. However, remorse tormented him and on the day the church was to be consecrated, he committed suicide with the same knife.
Once inside, you will be able to appreciate the main attractions of the Basilica of Santa Maria, which are essentially three: the blue ceiling, the splendid stained glass windows and the wooden altarpiece by the German artist Veit Stoss depicting the Virgin Mary among the apostles. Generally, you can enter without paying a ticket, but you will have to use a side entrance. If you are interested in religious tourism, check out our article 10 must-see churches in Krakow.
Climb Wawel Hill
Once you have finished visiting the basilica, you can take a short walk southwards. In just over ten minutes you will reach the foot of a limestone rock that rises above the Vistula. At its summit stand two symbols of the city: the castle and the cathedral.
In the 16th century, King Sigismund I the Old called to his court the best Polish and foreign artists who gradually carved the magnificent Renaissance castle that we can see today. The castle houses very interesting permanent exhibitions:
- The royal apartments, a collection of tapestries, portraits of kings and princesses, furniture and paintings by Italian and Dutch artists.
- The royal flats
- The treasury and armoury of the Crown, which brings together insignia, jewellery, arms and armour.
- The oriental art exhibition with Turkish and Persian banners, weapons and carpets and a few ceramic objects from China and Japan.
A few metres further on rises the Wawel Cathedral, the former coronation place of the Polish kings. After crossing the threshold, you can admire the mausoleum of St. Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland who was murdered by King Boleslaus himself. Thanks to this tomb, Wawel Cathedral is the most important place of worship in the whole country. For more info, you can check the post Visiting Krakow Castle: opening hours, how to get there, guided tours and more.
Return to your hotel and get ready for dinner
After a first foray, it's time to return to your accommodation for some well-deserved rest. After a hot shower you are ready to go out for dinner. One of the most popular restaurants in Kraków is Trzy Gęsi, which revisits traditional recipes with a modern twist.
My recommendation is to choose a tasting menu to start a culinary journey with the experienced chefs. The restaurant is located at 7 Kupa Street and is open from 17:00 to 23:00 (Tuesday - Saturday) and from 13:00 to 20:00 (Sunday). It is advisable to book well in advance.
Conclude the first day at a bar with live music
Do you love jazz? If the answer is "yes", you absolutely must visit the Piano Rouge. Located in the heart of the city (46 Rynek Glowny Street), this jazz bar is characterised by a burlesque atmosphere with red lights, feather boas and velvet cushions.
Live music is played every night from 21:00 and while you enjoy the show, you can have a cocktail or a glass of wine. The place has a lot of charm and is highly recommended if you are visiting Krakow with your partner.
However, if you fancy something more lively, head to Kazimierz. The Jewish quarter is the most party-loving area of the city and at 5 Estery Street you'll find a bar that has become a real institution: the Alchemia. This place owes its name to the alchemists' tools used as decoration and is famous for its musical offerings. In its lounge you can listen to jazz and rock music by renowned local artists and bands.
Day 2: A Chilling Tour
Thousands of tourists travel to Krakow to visit a place that everyone knows and that leaves no one indifferent: Auschwitz. Everyone should cross its entrance at least once in their lives in order not to forget this sad page of history.
Spend half a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
A weekend in Krakow will give you the opportunity to visit an emblematic place of contemporary history: the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. This lager is a symbol of the terror and genocide perpetrated against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, and visiting it will leave you with a sense of anguish. Let's not kid ourselves, it's not an easy trip, but sometimes you have to make the effort to see the horrors of war and the persecution of minorities first hand.
The concentration camp is located in Oświęcim, 60 km from Kraków. You can get there by bus, train or car. However, to understand the historical significance of the site and learn the stories of its prisoners, it is best to choose a guided tour by booking your ticket in advance, especially if you are travelling to Poland during the high season (April to October).
In the article Excursions to Auschwitz from Krakow you will find all the information you need to choose a tour. In the list below, on the other hand, I provide you with some useful information on how to make the visit:
- Auschwitz was a place of suffering and death. Always maintain decorum during your visit.
- You may take photographs in many areas, but you may not use flash photography inside the buildings. In some areas (the hall with the victims' hair and the cellars of Block 11) it is not possible to take photographs.
- Before leaving the hotel, check the weather forecast. Much of the complex is outdoors. Depending on the season, bring a mackintosh and umbrella or a hat and sunscreen.
- Bring a backpack or small bag. If your luggage is larger than 30x20x10 cm, you won't be able to bring it inside.
- Due to the harshness of the visit, if you are travelling with children under 14 years of age, it is preferable to avoid it. In this case, you can opt for the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The article Visiting the Wieliczka salt mines with children explains everything you need to know.
Try zapiekanka in Plac Nowy
On your return to Kraków, you can try a typical Polish meal: the zapiekanka, a half-baguette with mushrooms, ham, cheese and vegetables. It's the Polish equivalent of pizza and derives its name from the local term for baking. Once a cheap treat for students and workers, today there are more refined versions to suit even the most discerning palate.
In the city, Endzior is the most sought-after bar. The establishment is located in the heart of Kazimierz (Plac Nowy 4) and is known for its quality/price ratio and generous portions. As usual, you'll have to queue a bit to get your baguette.
Finish the day at a spa
After a day that has been both physically and emotionally challenging, you can realign your soul in a spa in the city centre. In Kraków there is a unique place that combines two popular elements: relaxing treatments and beer. The establishment is called Beernarium Piwne Spa and is located at Floriańska Street 13, just two minutes away from the Market Square. Here you can literally bathe in beer whose ingredients rejuvenate your skin. As a bonus, this original experience takes place in a wooden bathtub. At the end of the treatment you can enjoy a local beer.
Day 3: Discover the communist side of Kraków
In Poland, as in the other countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain, communism had a great impact on the lives of its citizens. In Kraków, the Soviet legacy is particularly evident in Nowa Huta, a neighbourhood a few kilometres from the Old Town.
Relive Kraków's Soviet past
Nowa Huta was an ideal town conceived by Stalin. In his intentions, the town was a gift to Polish socialists and a showcase for the progress of communism. Its main features are the large avenues that start from a central square and form a star.
Other points of interest are the nuclear bunkers and the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland. Also known as Arka Pana, this place of worship triggered a struggle between the inhabitants of Nowa Huta and the communist authorities who did not want religious buildings in their ideal neighbourhood.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the streets were renamed: the former Lenin Street is now Solidarity Avenue while the square dedicated to Stalin has become Ronald Raegan Square. Curious, isn't it? However, the appearance of the city remains the same and with an organised tour you will discover some interesting anecdotes. However, if you feel like exploring Nowa Huta at your own pace, you can take a tram (lines 4 and 70) from the Slowackiego Theatre stop. If you prefer another day trip, you can read the post about the best tours and excursions from Krakow.
Explore the Kazimierz quarter
Once back in Krakow, you can take a stroll through a more traditional district. In the southern part of the Old Town is the city's youngest and liveliest quarter: Kazimierz! Nowadays, it is a favourite haunt of hipsters who frequent its stylish cafés and art galleries. However, it wasn't always like this.
In the 14th century and until the beginning of the 19th century, these streets were exclusively inhabited by Jews who, despite the restriction of having to live here, enjoyed certain privileges: they governed themselves and only the king could exercise his authority over them.
Everything changed during the Second World War. With the arrival of the Germans, the neighbourhood suffered a great deal of devastation. Unfortunately, the situation remained the same during the communist era and it was only in the 1990s that things changed. A great help was given by the film Schindler's List, which was shot in some parts of the neighbourhood.
During your tour you can visit the Temple Synagogue (24 Miodowa Street), the Galician Jewish Museum (18 Dajwór Street) and the Skałka Church (Skałeczna Street). This last place hides a macabre anecdote: in the 11th century, Bishop Stanisław of Szczepanów was murdered and then dismembered by King Bolesław the Bold over a territorial dispute. If you want to learn more about this area of the city, I recommend the post What to see and do in Kraków's Jewish Quarter.
Finish off your long weekend with a special dinner
To say goodbye to Krakow, there is nothing better than a nice dinner in a warm and cosy restaurant. The Morskie Oko restaurant fits the bill and I'm sure you won't be disappointed. The establishment is located on the ground floor of an art nouveau building at number 8 Szczepański Square.
The restaurant is characterised by its rustic charm, wooden beams and a fireplace that spreads a pleasant smell of wood in every room. It is the ideal place to sample regional Polish cuisine, especially if you visit Kraków during the winter. The establishment owes its name to the lake of the same name in the Tatra Mountains.
Its name means "the eye of the sea" because in the past it was believed that an underground tunnel connected it to the Baltic. If you are interested in local gastronomy, I recommend reading the post about the 10 best restaurants in Kraków.